In 1967, exactly a year before he was assassinated, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. addressed a meeting of Clergy and Laity Concerned at Riverside Church and assailed the Johnson administration for its war policy in Vietnam.
“We must move past indecision to action,” King stated toward the end of his speech, entitled “A Time to Break Silence.” “We must find new ways to speak for peace in Vietnam and justice throughout the developing world—a world that borders on our doors. If we do not act, we shall surely be dragged down the long, dark and shameful corridors of time, reserved for those who possess power without compassion, might without morality and strength without sight.”
King’s admonishments then, taken in part from Mohandas Gandhi’s “Seven Deadly Social Sins,” are no less important today—as they were then directed at a war machine already in motion—and they should be heeded now as President Barack Obama wrestles with decision and indecision.
The nation recently commemorated the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington and King’s immortal “I Have a Dream” speech, but his words in 1967 express all the pertinence invested in what he termed the “fierce urgency of now.”
At the heart of King’s opposition to the war in Vietnam was the wasteful use of money so vitally needed for the poor people of America. He was equally disturbed by the role of the U.S. as the world police, intervening in global affairs and, in the end, merely exacerbating the conflict.
During his commemoration address of the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, Obama admitted that his speech could never match King’s soaring oratory, and while that is certainly true, the president still has the opportunity to match King’s moral resolve, his concern about the danger of engaging in another winless war.
Other than the moral imperatives, the U.S. has no stake in the crisis in Syria, though only the absolutely heartless can stand by and watch the mutilation of thousands of defenseless people. We grieve with the loss of human life in Syria, but we don’t have to go too far to comprehend senseless murder, destructive poverty and the general plight of countless Americans.
A surgical strike in Syria without any serious disruption of President Bashar al-Assad’s regime would tend to embolden it, perhaps forcing it to greater attacks on the rebels. Secretary of State John Kerry has said that the only guarantee the U.S. has is that our inaction will bring further hostility to the people of Syria. Well, our action may produce the same result. And a change of regime could leave al-Qaeda in power, and this would not be an outcome favored by U.S. allies in the Middle East. Also, to get involved in Syria will be a costly endeavor in terms of military might and valuable resources.
So we take the path forged by King, who declared, “A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.”
Obama would do well to heed the words of the prophet.